Tuesday, April 05, 2005

The Pope in perspective 

From a great piece in the "Opinion Journal":

"In the post-Berlin Wall world this man did so much to shape, it's difficult to recall the much different circumstances that obtained when he assumed the chair of St. Peter. Former Italian prime minister Aldo Moro had been kidnapped and executed by terrorists. In Iran bloody protests were brewing that would within months pull down the Shah and usher in the ayatollahs. In the Soviet Union the dissident Anatoly Shcharansky (now the Israeli Natan Sharansky) was dispatched to the gulag, while Afghanistan had already endured the leftist coup that would, in short order, lead to a full-fledged Soviet invasion.

"Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher were still in the future, and so was a workers' strike called by an unknown Pole named Lech Walesa. Everywhere one looked, the truth of the Brezhnev Doctrine seemed brutally self-evident: Once Communist, always Communist. Oh, yes: The Catholic Church which this first Slavic pope found himself bequeathed was thought by many to be hopelessly irrelevant to the crises of modern times."
It is astounding to think how much the world has changed in those twenty seven years. We've all lived through it - with exception of the youngsters among us - but there is, of course, a difference between simply "being there" and experiencing the changing world as a passive observer, and being one of those who shape the changes.

Karol Wojtyla ascended to the throne of St Peter at the lowest point in the post-war history of the West and passed away having seen the total reversal of the international situation, one that no one would have expected in 1978. It goes to show how much we all take for granted and how much we can be enslaved by the common wisdom. History, I'm sure, is moved by huge, impersonal social, economic and political forces, but it's difficult to imagine that it all would have turned out the same way without John Paul II, Ronald Reagan, Margaret Thatcher and Mikhail Gorbachov all sharing the world stage at the same time.

Update: Charles Krauthammer makes a similar point, but more eloquently (than me, that is; not the "Opinion Journal"). Hat tip: Deacon at Powerline who writes:

"During the papacy of John Paul II, we heard much chatter about a 'third way' in politics -- an approach that would be neither that of the left nor the right. The third way usually amounted to a socialism (and latter a liberalism) sufficiently toned-down to provide the hope of obtaining majority approval. John Paul II, by contrast, offered a genuine third way. Yet, because his vision was religiously and morally based, those who chatter about these things never seemed to notice it."
I can only add that while the "third way", mostly popularized by none other than Tony Blair, was a novel attempt to repackage and sell centre-left politics to the cynical electorate let down by the unfulfilled promise of social democracy, the Pope's third way was not new at all. With his distrust of both socialism and liberalism, John Paul II was merely following in the political footsteps of continental Christian Democracy (which in practice meant Catholic Democracy), an ideology of social or communitarian market.

Christian Democracy has not been very successful across Europe since the early 1980s. It will be interesting to see whether it will be able to adapt itself to the twenty-first century and stage a comeback on the politically restless continent that is desperately looking for a new paradigm.


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